The night of the hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

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The maiden, the mother and the crone in The night of the hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955).

I didn’t especially like The night of the hunter. I found it has aged badly, and it is told in a not very elegant way, as well as being maybe too straightforward and predictable.

But there was something I did find interesting in it, and that is the role that women play in it. There are lots of female characters in it, but very few are portrayed in a favourable light (probably only one, Ms. Cooper). Well, most of the characters in this movie are either bastards or hypocrites, but I’d like to focus on the women because it also allows me to highlight the way men are portrayed.

The first archetype we see is the mother, Willa. Her husband was no saint and got hung for killing two people while robbing a bank. She’s left with two children who know where the 10,000 dollars are hidden. One of the two crones, Mrs. Spoon, basically coerces her into marrying the first man that shows up because obviously she can’t raise two kids alone. Sadly, that was true back then, in a way, as we’ll see later. And Mrs. Spoon was fatally wrong because Willa could have married any nice fella if she had just opened her eyes and looked around, but she had to marry the one serial killer that is after the robbery money. It qualifies as an idiot plot, too.

So for the moment we have a wife that’s worth nothing without a husband on her side and a crone that basically pushes her into making the worst decision ever. The Preacher not only has the only intention to find out where the money is, he proceeds to humiliate Willa and have her tell everyone that her husband robbed a bank because she wanted clothes and makeup. That could still happen today, but had a deeper impact in a more misogynistic society like the Great Depression, so you’ve now got a broken woman with no agency.

Having made Willa bite the dust, the Preacher turns to the children, what he wanted all along. Pearl trusts him, while John does not. This is not due to her gender, most likely to her being younger and more gullible. But later we’ll see another maiden who clearly falls for whatever the Preacher has. Ruby is young and looking for love whatever way she can, just like Ms. Cooper recognises later. We know that the men she’s lusting after are no good, but she doesn’t. She sees what the Preacher is up to and still doesn’t want to admit it just because he bought her ice-cream and told her she had pretty eyes. In this world, maidens can only marry good men and become mothers or fall into the claws of bad men and perish. And there are a good deal of bad men in this movie. Only the law enforcement members, who are just seen briefly, could be thought of as good men. The rest are either corrupt, like the Preacher and Ben Harper, or plain useless, like Uncle Birdie, who is passed out drunk when the children need him, or Mr. Spoon, who’s consistently ignored and put down by his wife.

Which bring us to Ms. Cooper, the second crone, a mirror image of the first one, Mrs. Spoon, in that she sees right through the Preacher. Ms. Cooper is raising no less than five orphaned children, but nobody cares because she’s a crone, therefore no marriage material. It’s weird that the heroine of this story is a crone, but look at it this way. This story has two kids that need saving, therefore they need a mother, not a father (also, how ridiculous would it look in a patriarchal society that two men fight for the custody of a pair of kids?). Maidens and mothers are systematically labeled as either gullible or whores, so the only thing you have left is a crone. A crone has no husband she’s tied to, so she can adopt a bunch of children if she likes, for all people care. Also she’s proof that Willa could have raised her children alone, that even then a woman could be as resourceful as a man if she could shrug off prejudices and had some luck with her choices.

Last but not least, the analysis could not be complete without looking at the figure of John. John looks up to his father, even if he is no saint, and systematically distrusts both the Preacher and law enforcement. Uncle Birdie disappoints him when he needed him most. When they are taking the Preacher away, the situation mirrors the arrest of his father, which makes him intercede for the Preacher and give up the money, not because he sympathises with the Preacher, but because he wishes he had done that with his father. Curiously enough, at the end of the film John is left in an all-feminine environment, with no male father-figure. For a film and an era so misogynist, it’s a surprising development, and makes me wonder if anyone back then gave it much thought.

House of Cards, Season 3 (2015)

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House of Cards, Season 3 (Netflix, 2015)

Score: Still astounding.

***SPOILERS FOR SEASONS 1 & 2***

I said in my review of Seasons 1 & 2 that I expected the subsequent seasons to be about the fall of the Underwoods, after having seen their meteoric rise, and I was not disappointed.

Frank Underwood has reached the White House by means of deceit and mischief, and he’s very much enjoying it. But elections are six months away, and he needs to secure what he has achieved. Frank Underwood is not a very good leader, he is extremely good at stomping people, but not at keeping loyalty and accepting constructive criticism. Soon everyone in his cabinet and the media know that he likes to rule in the way of a tyrant and a despot, especially when it comes to AmericaWorks, his pet project that he will see succeed at literally any cost. One of the things he does to promote it is to hire a fiction writer to produce a book that looks like a novel but is subliminal propaganda. Obviously, the author is much more interested in other aspects of the story.

Claire Underwood, now the First Lady, wants to pursue her own career and ambitions as a UN ambassador for the United States. Meanwhile, Doug Stamper survived Rachel’s attack and is slowly recovering. He’s eager to return to work under the Underwoods, but he’s played down and rejected for still being in recovery. The upcoming caucus before the elections don’t make anything any easier. New themes and characters appear, including prominently the President of Russia, since the challenges of the Presidency are very different to those of the contender.

 

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Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1972)

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Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski (1972).

Score: Outstanding.

A masterful deconstruction of Film Noir, Chinatown is brilliantly written and greatly executed. Ex-cop turned detective J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is approached to investigate the possible affair of a chief engineer of L.A. city hall, and ends up diving nose first into investigating a racket involving the city’s drinking water. And working side to side with the engineer’s wife, Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway).

For the first three-quarters of the film, it’s a colourful homage to classic Film Noir, of the likes of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep: tough-as-nails detective who can light a match on his cheeks’ stubble goes around getting his nose in dodgy business and outsmarting everyone. Throw in some costume porn, decadent luxury and a snarky protagonist and you’re ready to go. But this goes a bit further. While your usual Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novel will typically have unmistakably virtuous protagonists and the story will revolve around some unimportant macguffin, there is some serious shit going on here. Under the smug and stylish surface there is some very rotten rubbish, political corruption and moral misery. Robert Tawne, the writer, taps some very powerful universal taboos and leads the viewer to a ruthless conclusion: that there is very little a well-meaning man can do in a city infected with corruption.

Tawne’s use of foreshadowing and Chekhov’s guns is simply jaw-dropping, and while the film is a bit over two hours the narration is wonderfully economical and elegant. I definitely agree that this is one of the best screenplays ever written. Jack Nicholson’s and Faye Dunaway’s presences on screen are magnetic, with well-tempered and intoned voices. Kudos to the haunting trumpet solos.

It might not be a film to watch when you’re tired or hungover, since it’s a quite demanding film to watch, but it must be one of the best films ever.

Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds, 2000)

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Revelation Space, by Alastair Reynolds (2000)

Score: Quite good, promising start.

There’s something you must know about Revelation Space, which made me want to read it: it’s a space opera, with no faster-than-light travel or wormholes. Just good old travelling at relativistic speeds. ‘But that must be boring as fuck’, you might be thinking. Well, it’s not.

The story follows Dan Sylveste, who is in charge of an archaeological dig on planet Resurgam, investigating what might have wiped out the last intelligent species that lived there, the Amarantin. At the same time, former soldier turned assassin Ana Khouri is recruited for a special kind of assassination, and the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity, an old, decaying lighthugger, is looking for Sylveste because they need a favour, and they’re not going to ask for it nicely.

It’s quite hard science fiction and you can tell that Reynolds is actually an astrophysicist, but not so hard that he doesn’t take some justified artistic licenses. These are the perks of living with a neurophysicist, not that I could have noticed on my own. In fact I got quite lost in the technobabble near the end and my brain just overwrote “a wizard did it” on the whole thing. The unfurling of the whole thing is quite clever, although it gets to funny extremes when the characters keep telling each other the reveal but then the chapter ends abruptly and you’re there like ‘gee, I want in on the secret too!’ Also there is a certain character whose continuously dodging death gets ridiculous, but overall the writing is quite clever.

The characters are quite well written, I especially liked the Volyova/Khouri duo but found Sylveste a bit dull. Who said there are no complex and three-dimensional women in sci-fi?

As for the tone and style, it’s much more thorough, detailed and researched than A fire upon the deep and Hyperion, but Hyperion was maybe a bit more colourful. I don’t consider A fire upon the deep a contender because even though the Tines were very well designed, the rest of the universe felt quite underdeveloped. As for Hyperion, it was more colourful, but at the same time much more juvenile, excessive and disjointed at times. Simmons’ Liberal Arts major science was quite painful at times and the reveal was disappointing in comparison with the development, which just doesn’t happen with Revelation SpaceRevelation Space is much more sober and mature as a space opera, has fewer characters and events, but the universe timeline is much more solid and detailed.

I’m going to start with the next book in the series right away, which is something I rarely do. Give it a chance, if you like space opera you’re going to like this.

Grim Fandango Remastered (LucasArts and Double Fine, 1998-2015)

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Grim Fandango Remastered, developed by LucasArts and Double Fine Productions (1998-2015, PS4).

Score: A classic and a masterpiece.

Boy, I love me some remasters of games I never got to play in its day. Grim Fandango is as fresh and endearing as it must have been the day it came out.

You are Manny Calavera and you’re dead. Your job is to reap the souls of the recently deceased and sell them the best travel package they’re eligible for. If they were good, they get to travel to the afterlife in a luxury train in just four minutes, while if they were bad, they get to walk for four years across a savage land populated by rabid beavers and other adorable creatures. For some reason, Manny is only getting clients that are eligible for next to nothing and they’re threatening to fire him, while his colleague Domino is getting all the premium clients. And the reason is that ***MILD SPOILERS*** their company is actually running a scam, cheating good people of their tickets to sell them to rich dead who led objectionable lives.***END SPOILERS*** As you can see, part of what makes it so fresh after over fifteen years is that the plot is timeless.

The game is so much fun. It’s a graphic adventure where you speak with other characters, pick up stuff and use it to interact with the environment. As usual, you have to grind your brains to figure out what to do most of the time and some of the interactions are quite clever and funny, others are logical and some of them are absolutely nonsensical, but hey, that’s old-game difficulty for you. Something else I have difficulties with is figuring what parts of the background can be interacted with and how, and it could get really frustrating when I knew what to do but couldn’t just find the right angle for the interaction to trigger and when I got stuck in parts of the stage and couldn’t come out or missed whole portions of it due to the weird camera angles. Still, it’s worth it.

The sense of humour is delicious and the characters are so charismatic, especially the Manny-Glottis duo. The design and flavor are just awesome, mixing Latin American folklore with 1940′s noir. This will make me get a Mexican skull tattoo one day, I’m sure, and watch our for the references to classic Noir movies, such as Casablanca and Double Indemnity. Tony Plana does a superb job voicing Manny, with many easter eggs for us Spanish speakers, and in general the voice acting and dialogue is great. They kept the original Spanish dub in the remaster, which is clearly inferior to the original one in terms of spontaneity (and all the Mexican accents are gone, except for Chepito, who has an inexplicably thick and fake one).

As for the remaster, it comes with newly rendered character models and the original backgrounds (though the models are not rerendered in the cutscenes) and includes both the original tank controls and more modern, camera-based ones. If you want the platinum trophy, you’re going to have to endure the tank controls.

But don’t take it from me. You can enjoy this gem on PS4, PSVita, OSX, Linux and Windows. I’ll be waiting here when you’re done!